The U.S. elections generate huge interest abroad. This is definitely true in the Netherlands, the place I’ve called home for the past 11 years. The other day on the train I was preparing a presentation about social media use in the election campaign. As I juggled images of Todd Akin and Big Bird, the man next to me, in true Dutch fashion, stared shamelessly at my laptop screen. When I glanced at him, rather than look away he held my gaze. “So who do you think will win?” he wanted to know. It happens all the time: Dutch friends and perfect strangers ask my opinion of the debates and my reaction to Romney’s 47 percent video.
But the interest goes way beyond casual conversation. Now that we’ve reached October, there are almost weekly events, mostly in the form of discussions or debates. Last week, the U.S. Embassy of the Netherlands hosted a Republican (Shane Jett, former Oklahoma State Representative) and a Democrat (Gary Nordlinger of Nordlinger Associates). The entourage toured Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and Leiden, spreading knowledge about U.S. politics to fascinated audiences of students and professionals. I hosted the Rotterdam event. Before the event, the organizer approached me with a worried look on his face. He thought the Republican might get bullied by the audience, and asked me to help soften the tone if the questions became harsh. But he had nothing to fear. At events like these, criticism always seems to overlook partisan politics. Though they are concerned with the outcome of the election, and as a rule seem to prefer the Democrats, when it comes to their impression of the “American mentality” the Dutch don’t really see a difference. The tone has definitely softened since the Bush years, but the Dutch are one part fascinated and two parts distressed by what they see as aggressive U.S. foreign policy.
This cultural and political interest brings the Dutch all the way to the United States, too. From October 11-18, the BKB Academy, an offshoot of the BKB campaign agency based in Amsterdam, took a group of highly motivated young people to Washington, Richmond, Charlottesville, Philadelphia and New York to learn as much as they could about the presidential election by talking to pollsters, strategists, and “Joe the Plumbers.”
International headlines always mention developments in the election campaign, and some news organizations provide additional commentary. For example, Freke Vuijst is a correspondent for a left-wing weekly publication called Vrij Nederland (Free Netherlands). Even throughout the recent Dutch election campaign, every Tuesday and Friday she blogs about the U.S. elections, with headlines such as “Debating with Pinocchio Romney” and “For Sale,” where she discusses the commercial financing of U.S. elections.
On Election Day, universities and other organizations will hold all night events along with live streaming of election coverage. In Leiden, where I live, there will be an All American Night, starting off with spare ribs and American music. Again, a variety of speakers will provide insight into the mentality of U.S. politics, the debates, and the way campaigns and policy decisions precede. The audiences at these events, numbering in the thousands across Dutch soil, will listen with rapt attention.
I wrote this for POLITICO’s popular Open Mike feature on The Arena:
Of course it does. Candidates sure think it matters. They seem to value a high number of friends or followers online. In July, it was reported that Mitt Romney’s Twitter account (@MittRomney ) gained 116,922 followers in a span of just 24 hours. This was probably the result of using a Twitter follower service, but the intent is clear: high numbers demonstrate popularity. And it’s not just quantity, it’s also image. Online and in print, tips to politicians abound on how to act in the virtual world: Be friendly. Be authentic. Expect that people will want to engage in conversation. POLITICO argued that social media savvy was one benefit in Romney selecting Paul Ryan as his running mate. But it’s true – buzz is no guarantee for a win. A study of four 2010 races (two for Senate, two for Governor) by NM Incite found that the most buzzed about candidate won the seat – but in only three out of four races.
What about citizens? Does all this online chatter make a difference? In five minutes on Facebook, I can comment on a friend’s new hairstyle and get outraged about Todd Akin’s remarks on rape and abortion. Funny how a tool like Facebook can also be politically effective. But that does seem to be the case. Recent research published by Nature found that during the 2010 congressional election campaign, people were 0.39 percent more likely to vote if they received Facebook messages telling them that their friends had voted – that was an additional 282,000 votes cast. And that effect was strongest of all from closest (most interacted with) friends. It may not sound like much but in an election as tight as this one, it can make a big difference.
For democracy to thrive, we need well informed citizens who are well connected to each other and enthusiastic about sharing their views. Let’s not discount the role of social media outlets like Facebook.
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